Google’s latest telecom play is to provide last-mile 5G

The news: Google has partnered with Ericsson to provide cloud computing services and 5G connectivity for time-sensitive applications like robotics and VR, per Bloomberg. Early tests have started in conjunction with Italy's Telecom Italia.

More on this: Google will serve as the cloud services provider, while Ericsson will build the 5G wireless equipment.

  • The partnership is looking to sell the solution to carmakers and transportation providers, but will need the participation of regional telecom phone companies.
  • This deal reflects an urgency within Silicon Valley companies to take more control over internet networks and not just the data and content that flows through it.

How we got here: The partnership with Ericsson is Google’s latest attempt to dip its toes in telecom waters. The search giant has long been interested in developing a side business as a quasi-ISP:

  • Google-Fi is the company’s mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) service, which works by piggybacking on other carriers’ cellular and Wi-Fi networks.
  • Google Fiber provides high-speed broadband internet and IPTV to nine US states, with plans to expand to Utah in 2021.
  • Loon was an ambitious but failed “moonshot” project to bring internet connectivity to remote parts of the globe via giant balloons, which shut down in early 2021 for being too costly.
  • Firmina is Google’s plan to build massive fiber-optic cables between the east coast of the US and Argentina.

The bigger picture: The investments in submarine cables, edge networks, Wi-Fi, and cellular connectivity may seem individually insignificant, but taken as a whole they reflect Google’s ambitions to provide not just the internet’s infrastructure but access to it as well.

Big Tech companies like Google are already under fire for being too powerful and ubiquitous. By making inroads into telecoms as a service provider, Google could raise concerns about potential anticompetitive practices. At the same time, tech giants are competing to gain more control of the infrastructure. Amazon’s Sidewalk mesh service makes it an ISP of sorts with over 58.3 million smart home terminals, and Facebook has relentlessly sought partnerships with ISPs in countries like India while investing heavily in telecoms throughout Africa.

What’s next? It’s never easy to tell with Google. The company is notorious for starting and bailing on projects, which makes it hard to decipher if it plans to be involved with anything for the long haul. That said, Google tends to thrive in partnerships where established companies lend their expertise and reputation.

5G and telecoms are areas that involve Google’s core businesses and will serve them well, provided the projects don’t run afoul of regulators. The telecoms industry in particular stands to gain from modernization and increased investments, but it’s unclear whether companies like Google are the best bet for growth in the sector.